Why are publicists super cool?
Finding your way home.
I do not remember ever being lost. In my youth, I roamed the trackless wastes of the Mojave Desert, but those wastelands weren't trackless to me. No matter what new byway my friends and I explored, I always knew how to get back to where we started. I have an accurate sense of general directions, north, south, east and west. More importantly, I think visually, so as our old truck or dune buggy bumped and jarred over the rugged terrain, pictures of the landscape were continuously stored in my brain—a looming joshua tree or mesquite bush, a scraggly rock formation, a twist in the road, a set of animal tracks. All were duly recorded as pictures that my mind could easily recall later for orientation and reference purposes.
When we had explored as much as we wanted, shot through our ammo, eaten all our Hostess cherry pies, gotten as dirty as possible, and generally had a great time, my mind pictures guided us unerringly home. I easily distinguished between old roads previously traveled and new roads not yet explored. I always knew which fork in the road to take, which direction to go.
Unfortunately, when I signed a three-book contract for the Dimensions in Death series with Jolly Fish Press, those homing skills did not cross over into the untamed wilderness of social networking and book promotion. I had entered into an alien world with landmarks and signposts that I didn’t see, or when I did, I didn’t understand. Up to that point, I might have glanced once or twice at my wife's Facebook page and heard the words “Twitter” and “Blog,” but I did not think those things would ever be part of my world.
Suddenly, I was in a new land with unfamiliar terrain. I was lost. I could not visualize the road, or how all the roads connected with each other, or even which way was up or down, let alone north or south. While there were crisscrossing, bumpy roads in this new wilderness, there was no need for a rifle with ammo or a box of dynamite, and though a Hostess cherry pie still helped smooth the adventure when the going got rough, I was woefully ignorant of the real weaponry needed in this strange, alien wilderness.
Enter Chris Loke and Zach Power, publicists for Jolly Fish Press, and I discovered how cool a publicist could be for newbie authors like Andy and me. In what I know now were tentative first steps, the JFP Publicity Group helped us set up our Facebook and Twitter accounts, gave us a logo from the JFP design department, and directed us toward Blogspot. As we took our first tentative steps down these strange roads, they stayed near to coach us in our new adventure and warn us of the dangers along the way. Whenever we feared we were lost, they were always there to gently calm us with the wise counsel, "If you don't understand it, just Google it." JFP Publicity has been a faithful and trustworthy guide through an dangerous and wild country.
So, what are publicists good for? In our experience, the publicist is a fountain of clear water in the desert, a source of invaluable information, expertise, innovation, encouragement and a nudge (sometimes a shove from behind) when necessary. By forming a Facebook group binding the Jolly Fish Press authors and management together, JFP created another avenue for encouragement, blowing off steam, sharing information and ideas, and supporting each other. Of course, behind the scenes, JFP is also doing important groundwork which we only occasionally glimpse in the news we get of media contracts, contest information, publishing sub-contacts, as well as overseas, film and TV contacts, and much more.
When it comes to promoting our books, Andy and I don't pretend to be savvy or to understand where all the social media paths might lead. But from what JFP tells us, we’re on a path that will allow us to keep writing books. That's all we care about. Thanks, JFP Publicists! You’re super cool!
Keeping the Story Plot Invigorated and Surprising.
Cooking the sequel in a pressure cooker.
We’re all familiar with sophomoric sequels. The author makes a great start in the first book, but then the story just coasts along with no inspiration or energy in the second book. While we all hope that the second book will be at least as good as the first, we know it must cover new territory, and there is always a risk the author will lose his or her way. The challenge is to not just keep the story alive, but to keep it growing in surprising, unanticipated, and even exciting ways.
Pitch Green and Mojave Green are the first two books in the Dimensions in Death young-adult horror series. Based on a scary story we told as kids to siblings and friends, these books combine horror, suspense and mystery in a fast-paced battle with a monstrous evil presence, hiding in an old, deserted mansion in a small mining town, located in a desolate part of the Mojave Desert near Death Valley.
The mansion was built almost a hundred years ago by an eccentric genius, who got funding and structural specifications from a clandestine source of ancient knowledge and wealth. One night the genius was mysteriously slaughtered, and ever after, children and other defenseless animals in Trona and the surrounding desert have been disappearing without a trace on a regular basis.
In the first book, Pitch Green, we meet two teenagers, Camm and Cal, who are destined by wit, pluck and luck (not always good) to become the balancing force against the unearthly predator, who came to call the mansion home. Our heroes are hurled from one scene of horror to the next. Though their intentions are good, they don’t understand what they are facing, and by the end of the first book, a door has been left open to predations on an even grander scale.
In the second book, Mojave Green, a call from her best friend, Cal, brings news Camm had hoped never to hear. Children are again disappearing from Trona. Has the unnatural creature they killed last year returned to life or has the ancient Searles Mansion spawned a new menace? Ignoring dire warnings from federal agents, the pair take a road trip home with unsuspecting school friends in tow and discover the situation has gotten worse. With monstrous predators seemingly coming out of nowhere, enigmatic forces tear the friends apart, pulling Cal into another world, where his chances of survival are slim.
Finally coming to terms with her feelings for Cal, Camm desperately seeks help where she can, even from the dead, but can a rogue agent and other wary misfits help her uncover the long-lost secrets that she needs to rescue Cal and stop the inter-dimensional attacks?
The government will be no help. Most of the federal agents on the case are doing everything they can to catch Camm and stop her. The destiny of her own world may lie solely in Camm’s young hands.
Writing the second book was a completely different experience for us as co-authors than was the first. The first book was based on a childhood story that we had been telling for years, and the basic plot elements already existed. The second book is a brand new story that has never existed before. It was created from scratch in the last couple years. As co-authors, we had to agree on a whole new plot.
In both books, we were under pressure to make the story as thrilling as possible. We didn’t think in terms of one story being better than the other, just different, but we are definitely excited with the new direction taken by the Mojave Green story. Our fans can expect a faster moving, broader ranging story in the second book, which introduces new characters and covers more territory, both in terms of the desert geography as well as in the depth of the character emotions.
In addition to the careful research of applicable desert geography, which we try to describe as accurately as possible, we had to do in-depth research of basic principles of astro-physics and relativity theory since Mojave Green answers many of the questions of seemingly supernatural happenings raised in the first book, while at the same time raising new questions of its own. But remember, this is not a science fiction series. It is horror based on scientific principles, rather than on magic and mysticism.
Some of our favorite scenes in book two take place as Camm and Cal confront the new predators spawned by the collapse of the guardian systems that were originally built into the Searles Mansion to protect the residents of planet Earth. In solving life-and-death mysteries, our heroes find that mundane pieces of furniture, like an old grandfather’s clock, take on roles of life-saving significance.
Some of our favorite moments in writing and selling the Dimensions in Death books have come as we are able to interact with a few of our fans at book signings and other author events. Initially, we thought that writing a cohesive, compelling story would be the hardest part of the book-selling business. But, when we started trying to find an agent or publisher, who would take our manuscript, we decided that getting published was the hardest part of the business.
After sending out more than 150 query letters, we found a great publisher, Jolly Fish Press, and began the process of trying to sell our books. Now, we’re sure that building a fan base is the hardest part of the business. It’s a good thing it is also the most rewarding part.
As we get ready for the third book, Fatal Green, to come out in 2015, we’re excited not just for the saga to continue, but also for the opportunity to continue learning and growing in a new business, in a dynamically changing industry, in a world with disappearing boundaries and in a universe limited only by one’s own imagination. It doesn’t get better than this!
Why is thrilling and spooky better without graphic blood and gore?
The best kind of scary is not explicit, but is left to the imagination.
Achieving scary is more of an art, than a science, especially since what is scary to one may be just dumb to another. In the author’s book of fright, broad rules with general applications are few and far between. While most formulas for fear quickly lose potency with age and use, there is an old proverb that is always sound advice: There is more scare in the anticipation, than in the revelation.
When a threat is left to the imagination, we all tend to imagine the worst, meaning our own personal version of the worst, and scary is a personal affair. Very early in childhood, we are all introduced to scary. We know so little about the world in general, but we don’t lack for imagination. It is actually a miracle that we don’t scare ourselves to death before we grow up.
We grow up by learning the rules that govern the real world. Whether those rules are actually correct is not relevant. What’s important is that the rules define the world, giving us a false sense of stability and certainty. As adults, we don’t need to use our imaginations. We know the rules of reality. But, when our imaginations wander, we find that scary is still there. Nothing has changed, not really.
Scary is child’s play—it has always been child’s play. Some of the scariest games are the ones we played as children. In telling scary stories, we just have to remember how to play those games again.
Slowly, I pushed the door open, straining to see into the bedroom without actually stepping in. The door opened wide, all the way to the sliding closet doors behind it. I could see that both closet doors were closed, so I knew there was nothing immediately behind the door I was pushing, but I had no idea what was waiting in the closet. The hallway lights were off, but there was still enough light behind me to cast a black pillar across the room and onto the far wall. Nervously, I crouched to minimize my dark shadow, knowing there were hidden eyes watching me, waiting for my next move.
I could feel those eyes heavy upon me, drilling holes through me. I couldn’t see the watchers, but I knew they could see me. Each one waited for me to carelessly stray too close, where I would be easy prey. It was mandatory that I see or hear each one first, before I came within reach. The sense of doom was palpable. So many times, I had tried. So many times, I had failed.
Reaching carefully around the corner into the room, I flipped the light switch, hoping a light might come on, but nothing happened. Though it was hopeless, I flipped the switch a couple more times, thinking it might elicit a reaction from someone in the room--still nothing. Except for a dim lamp, stuffed under a red sheet in a far corner, the room was dark and hidden in heavy shadows--nothing moved. A blanket hung across the outside window, blocking all daylight. Another blanket hung from the non-working ceiling light across to one end of the window blind, completely hiding one corner of the room.
This was a new configuration. I didn’t know what to expect. Dropping down to hands and knees, I tried to see under the beds, but blankets on both beds hung all the way to the floor. Hoping to see underneath, I flipped up a corner of the blanket on the bed by the door, but it was too dark to see anything. Holding my breath, I listened for any sound that might betray a nearby watcher, but heard nothing.
The first move had to be mine. Standing, I leaned into the room. Piles of blankets and pillows covered the bed to my right. I decided not to go that way--who knew what was under those piles.
Sliding into the room with my back against the closet door, I kept a hand on its handle to prevent anyone from sliding it open from inside. I stepped quickly to the middle of the wall on the other side. Back to the wall, facing out, I watched for any movement, listened for any noise. I was now close enough to the second bed that with a quick step, I could hop on top. This bed had no blankets or pillows on it that might be hiding someone--it looked safe. I stepped forward, getting ready to jump, but a hand suddenly shot out from under the bed, grabbing my ankle. I yelped in surprise as I stumbled and fell. Already, they had me, and I hadn’t seen it coming.
In a sudden rush, the tension was released. I was safe once more. Of course, I had never really been in danger--it had just felt that way. And that was the fun of our small haunted house.
This was a game invented by our cousins, Sandra and Steven, fraternal twins. When they came to our house, there was usually something scary going on, and one of our favorite games was “Haunted House.” Because the grownups didn’t want us ransacking the entire house, it was really just a haunted bedroom, but that was all we needed to create some serious haunting.
The rules of the game were simple. One kid was sent away to wait in the front room while all the other kids turned a bedroom into a haunted house. When someone in the haunted house yelled, “Ready,” the designated victim would try to find (see or hear) all the monsters hidden around the room before one of them could grab the victim by surprise. Everyone enjoyed the mystery and suspense of being the victim. It was a challenge trying to anticipate where all the monsters would be hidden. Sometimes a monster would be put in an obvious place to distract the victim from another monster carefully hidden nearby.
We all enjoyed being monsters too. It took a lot of creativity to not do the same thing every time--there was no mystery or suspense in repeatedly doing the same thing. In addition, a good haunted house required more than just mystery and suspense. In order to be really scary, a good haunted house, or a good horror story, needs one or both of the following: (1) a grave threat from a hidden source of danger, and/or (2) a warping or distortion of something that is normally familiar and friendly.
The victim in a haunted house (or the reader of a horror story) must feel a personal threat (either to him or herself directly or to a significant other, like the story’s main character). The more significant the danger, the scarier the threat, with life and death threats being among the scariest. A good horror story creates a bond between the reader and the character at risk, so the threat will hang heavy over the reader as it hangs heavy over the character in the story.
One way to make a hidden danger feel eminent, or to increase the sense of alarm, is to create a sense of revulsion through a warping or distortion of the familiar. Few things are more fascinating, and at the same time more scary, than something familiar, even mundane, that has been horribly warped or distorted to the point of being painfully repulsive. Even without feeling a direct personal threat to oneself, or a significant other, an encounter with a repulsive distortion of the familiar can elicit gut wrenching feelings of disgust and fear. This has been done successfully with clowns, birds and even mothers.
When it comes to scary, a subtle presentation of a hidden danger coupled with a distortion of the familiar will beat a stream of blood and gore every time and will keep your readers (victims) coming back again and again. Though you will need to be creative in building the mystery and suspense anew in each new story (even each new chapter), your readers will love you for it. Good haunting! Good horror!
Are Two Storytellers Better Than One? A Co-Writer Can Help You Tell Your Story
. Please don’t get me wrong. My brother doesn’t need a keeper, though sometimes my wife says that I do, but if he did need a keeper, he has a bunch of sisters who would be happy to take the job. We grew up in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley. Our father was a dentist, who had a practice in Trona, California, a small mining town. He was the only dentist in town. As the good citizens of Trona mined the minerals of Searles Valley, Dad mined their teeth. When Andy and I went off to college, we left the desert, thinking never to look back. We thought we were done with Trona, but couldn’t have been more wrong. For 35 years, I was a business lawyer for international commercial finance companies in Ohio, Michigan and Colorado. For 25 years, Andy was a trial practice lawyer, working in Southern California. We have kept our law licenses current, but are now writing fiction full time. Though some say that’s what we did as lawyers, this is different. As lawyers, we were always solving other people’s problems. After we each moved to Colorado, we talked about starting a business together where we only had to solve our own problems. We both have many years of formal writing experience, and we have always been storytellers, first to siblings and friends, then to our children, and now to our grandkids, so writing fiction made sense. A few years ago, I started writing a young-adult science fiction series, so when Andy also tried his hand at writing fiction, it didn’t take long for us to come together as The Brothers Washburn on a young-adult horror series. Scary stories are a family specialty. The tale is of course set in Trona, California, which is a perfect setting for a horror series. Growing up, Andy loved A Collection of Short Stories, by O. Henry. Later, Stories Your Mother Never Told You, by Alfred Hitchcock, was a favorite. As a teenager, he was fascinated with The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury. For my part, I was always on the lookout for anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs and always searching for new sci-fi authors. It is no surprise, then, that we are currently writing both a YA horror series as well as a separate YA sci-fi series. We find that once we start telling a horror or sci-fi story, the bounds of the story are limited only by our own imaginations. As brothers, we get along well and have healthy levels of mutual self-respect. We can freely share ideas and challenge each other without worrying about egos. We are more creative when bouncing ideas off each other and discussing a general storyline, but we actually write separately, and then confer later on what we have been doing. Sometimes we disagree on specific wording, and there is some friendly give and take as we consider alternatives, but then we agree quickly on the final wording. We both appreciate the different perspective and skills the other brings to the joint process. In key ways, we are different in how we approach a story. Andy was a planner (a habit from writing like an lawyer), but in fiction, he no longer plans ahead. He likes to develop his characters, and let them take the story wherever it is going. On the other hand, I am still a planner. I make lists and outlines, not only for the current story, but for future stories as well. Andy doesn’t like having people around him when he is writing, especially when he is creating new material. Sometimes people just bug him. When I’m writing, I have to organize my surrounding environment. Once everything is in order, I can detach from the world and write. If Andy hits a tough spot in the story development, it is usually because of outside distractions. If he can get rid of distractions, he can keep writing. If I hit a tough spot, I don’t try to force it. I stop, leave the house, and pick up some fast food where I watch people. I come back refreshed and ready to move the story forward. I find that fresh ideas come naturally when I’m eating--Chipotle is always good. Background research is important to us both in two areas: theoretical science and local Trona geography. First, the Dimensions in Death series is an ongoing horror story based on principals of science rather than on demons, devils or magical creatures. An understanding of extremes in scientific theory is necessary and fun. But, this series is not science fiction with a few scary scenes. It is horror and suspense in a fast-pace narrative with a little science, by way of explanation, sprinkled on for spice, as the truth is gradually discovered by our heroes in the story. Second, the local geography in the story plays a critical role in setting the mood of the tale. Trona, California is a real place in this world located in a desolate region of the Mojave Desert by Death Valley, and we try to keep the scene settings as real and correct as possible. The general outline for the first book, Pitch Green, came together one evening in November of 2010. We were attending a writer’s seminar in Manhattan, listening to panel discussions by top literary agents. As we rode the subway from one end-of-the-line stop across town to the opposite end-of-the-line stop, and then back again, we mapped out the basic elements we needed to expand a favorite childhood, scary story into a full-length novel. Andy wrote a first rough draft, and then I took it over to edit and expand the tale. In writing the first book, the ground work was laid for both the sequels and prequels in that series. In Pitch Green, we meet two teenagers, Camm and Cal, who are destined by their wit, pluck and luck (not always good) to become the balancing force in this world against predators that keep showing up around an old mansion, which is something more than just a mansion. Our heroes must make a stand against the mansion’s guardian, any unearthly visitors who might want to come through the mansion in search of easy prey, and the forces of the U.S. Federal Government, who are using the mansion to access unlimited natural resources. Camm is the brains; Cal is the muscle, and together they make a formidable team when they decide to work together. They are joined by an FBI agent, Special Agent Linda Allen, who is smart, resourceful and not intimidated by either those who are using or those who are protecting the mansion and its secrets. Hurled from one scene of horror to the next, the protagonists barely have time to catch their breaths, let alone to comprehend what is really happening. They do not understand the nature of what they are facing. Though their intentions are good, by the end of the first book, they have left a dimensional doorway wide open and unguarded. Pitch Green is the opening act in a long and complex tale in which Camm, Cal and Agent Allen will be intrepid explorers in the dimensions in death. The Brothers Washburn Author links: Website: www.thebrotherswashburn.com Social Media: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheBrothersWashburn Blog: http://www.thebrotherswashburn.blogspot.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/BrosWashburn Book Dealers: see: Pitch Green or Mojave Green Goodreads: https://www.Goodreads.com/thebrotherswashburn Amazon: https://www.Amazon.com/author/thebrotherswashburn Kindle Editions & paperbacks available on Amazon.com Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ Nook Books & paperbacks available on Barnesandnoble.com Miscellaneous Dealers: see: Pitch Green or Mojave Green http://www.booksamillion.com/ http://www.indiebound.org/ http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/ http://www.schulerbooks.com/ http://www.powells.com/
Creating Props with Character
The Right Props Help You Tell Your Story
We’re still talking about drawing clear word pictures by setting the stage in your story with the right props. The best props have their own character or personality. So far, I’ve talked about the roles that the Bell Family pickup and my own dune buggy played in my youthful adventures in the desert and mountains between Trona, California and Death Valley.
During the summer before my senior year in high school, my family moved from Trona to Ridgecrest, California, 25 miles away, but still deep in the Mojave Desert. Dad said that after the summer ended, I could drive back to Trona each day during the school year to finish high school there and graduate from Trona High, but in the meantime, all my old haunts and friends were gone for the summer with only dry, mountainous desert stretching between us. I was left with every teen’s worst nightmare, making a new group of friends.
Ridgecrest had almost 20,000 people then and was ten times bigger than Trona. Meeting new people there, I soon realized that new opportunities for adventure had opened up. As I shared stories of my Trona adventures with my new Ridgecrest friends, I wondered what we could do in the nearby China Lake area. China Lake is a dry lake bed located in a Naval weapons testing zone, so we couldn’t actually go there, but there is lots of desert around it, open to the public and just begging to be explored.
I knew we’d think of something, and an idea was born one blistering-hot, summer afternoon. Sweat painted thick, dark marks on my T-shirt as I dug a trench through cement-hard Mojave Desert caliche, hiding under a thin layer of sandy topsoil. A new friend, Barry Edwards, and I had gotten summer jobs with a local landscaper. Digging trenches for sprinkler systems was back-breaking work, but the hourly pay was good.
The solution to our hunger for adventure came in the form of Barry’s old pickup truck.
That day, as we chipped our way down the trench, one of the other workers cocked his head at Barry’s 1950-something Ford pickup. “You know, if you’re truck is the right year, the width of the axle is the exact same width as the railroad tracks. As long as you don’t try to steer, you can drive that truck on the rails.”
That’s all it took. Barry and I looked at each other. “We should see if your truck fits,” I said. He smiled.
Our workday started around 4 am to beat the heat and often ended around 3 or 4 pm. After work, we had the afternoon free, so we drove out into the desert on a dirt road that led to an isolated railroad crossing. We didn’t want anyone watching, and this dirt crossing had more gradual slopes to and from the tracks.
I jumped out, directing as Barry maneuvered the truck back and forth in the intersection until it was perpendicular to the road, heading in the same direction as the rails. With both hands waving, I guided him, shouting, “This way. Now that way a little, good, good ... come straight,” until all four tires had rolled onto the tracks. The middle of each tire sat perfectly on the middle of a rail. Success!
Hopping inside, I said, “Remember, we’re on the rails now. You can’t steer or you’ll drive us off the tracks.” Barry nodded, holding both hands up, off the steering wheel. Slowly, he pushed down on the gas pedal until we were going about 20 miles an hour along the tracks. The ride was so smooth, like gliding on air. The tracks curved gradually, and then started up a hill. We exchanged looks as the truck started to slow, but with a little more gas, we purred up that hill like the truck was flying. The feeling was exhilarating.
We were literally on a roll, and eventually got the truck up to 55 mph! We didn’t dare go much faster for fear we’d jump the rails, so we just cruised along, windows rolled down, radio blasting, scrolling the wind with our hands and watching the jack rabbits jump out of the desert bushes that covered both sides of the ten-foot-high berm that formed the foundation of the rail bed.
Barry peered through the windshield, then pointed ahead. We could see the faint trace of another dirt road cutting across the line of our tracks--another railroad crossing. We worried the tires might pop off the rails inside the intersection, but we sailed through no problem. By the time the next intersection loomed in the distance, however, we decided we didn’t want to push our luck any further.
“Better get the speed down if we’re getting off,” Barry said, taking his foot off the gas, so we were just coasting. The brakes on Barry’s truck were old and pulled to one side, so we didn’t dare brake. At the next crossing we were going slow, so with a touch of the brake, Barry slipped us off the rails onto the dirt road.
Next day at work, we both agreed, “Let’s do it again!” We spent the rest of the workday talking about ways to upgrade our rail-riding experience.
That afternoon, with just a couple quick stops along the way for supplies, we were back at our favorite isolated railroad crossing. Once we were rolling along the tracks again, we positioned a large, flat rock against the gas pedal with one end lying on the driveshaft hump in the middle of the truck and the other end resting on the floor below the pedal. By scooting the rock up or back against the gas pedal, we could steady the gas flow until we had leveled our speed out at about 35 to 40 mph.
We then scrambled out the side windows, climbing carefully along the slick metal to sit on the roof of the cab. We let our legs dangle down onto the windshield as we ate our picnic of Hostess pies and soda pop. We also had our .22 rifles loaded and in hand for the shooting gallery. We hadn’t forgotten those jack rabbits.
The breeze swept our hair back and the whole Mojave Desert stretched out on every side. With no one working the gas, the pickup slowed down when we climbed hills and gained speed on the downward side, but otherwise drove itself. After cruising and shooting at jack rabbits for half an hour or so, we noticed a tunnel looming up ahead. Not thinking much about it, we rode inside. Pitch blackness enveloped us.
“Uh, I think we need lights,” Barry said, and inched over to climb carefully down into the cab and switch on the headlights. Deep black stretched beyond the reach of our light beams with no end in sight.
“So what happens if we see a train coming?” Barry asked.
I shook my head in the dimness. “Depends on which way the train is going, but there’s no way for us to get off the rails in here.”
For a mile or more we rode through the tunnel, eyes and ears alert for the stabbing light and clicking sound of rails that would signal an approaching train. Relieved, we finally saw the approaching daylight at the end of the tunnel. Once we had barreled out into the open again, we agreed, “That was dumb. We should have checked out the train schedules before going through that tunnel.”
Back in town, Barry got to work, talking with people, who worked for the railroad, getting an idea of who used the tracks and when. Not a fail-proof plan, but good enough for our purposes.
Our next question was, “Who do we want to invite along on the next trip?”
We had several friends in mind and their first responses were always the same. “Are you kidding?”
“No, we ride the rails. It’s great. Bring your .22 and some chips or pop. We’ll bring the Hostess pies.”
A slow smile would come with belief, telling us we had made another convert. Not all wanted to brave the slippery path to the top of the cab, choosing instead to slide out the door and climb around into the truck’s back bed, but either way, everyone enjoyed the ride, eating and shooting. We traveled for miles with no one in the cab, no one driving. The tunnel was always a thriller, and fortunately, we never saw a train.
The large, flat rock stayed permanently in Barry’s truck that summer—always ready anytime we wanted to put the truck into auto-pilot. I don’t know when he finally threw it out, but I wish now we had thought to keep it. After all, that rock was a special kind of prop, a non-standard part of the truck.
Thanks to Barry’s old truck, with the right wheel gauge, I made great friends in Ridgecrest that summer.
In the Fall, my new friends went back to Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, and I went back to Trona High, but we stayed in touch. I saw my new friends on weekends. At the time, I was not aware of any rivalry between the two high schools. They were in completely different worlds. Trona was in a totally different league, too small to even show up as a blip on the Burroughs’ radar screen.
To this day, I still have family and friends in Ridgecrest and Trona. I go back to visit as often as possible, and as I drive along U.S. Route 395, I look over at the railroad tracks and think of the carefree hours spent perched on the outside of a driverless truck, just cruising, talking, shooting, munching, and ridin' the rails.
It didn’t get better than that.
Setting The Stage
Drawing a Picture With Words
From the beginning of my writing career, my wife Carolyn has been my working editor. She pulls no punches and helps with so many things, like not switching character point of view, not losing reader momentum in backstory or subplot tangents, focusing the direction of character dialogue, and clearly setting the stage for key story events. She is also good at reducing and simplifying my sentence and paragraph structures.
She has always loved theater and thinks in terms of what the set (background, scenery and props) should look like. Properly staging the story in crisp, clean wording helps the reader form a complete mental picture of what is happening, which keeps the reader oriented and engaged.
Using the right props can make or break a key story event. In addition, a good prop can be woven into the story to tie together a chain of events or people. Certain props can even have their own character, almost a personality. My first car was just a stripped-down dune buggy, an engine on a frame, but it still had lots of character, which contributed to the success of many of my teenage adventures.
I got my first car because of someone else’s Christmas gift. Gerald Rana and I played on the football team together throughout high school. He was a hard-charging full back; I was a center. One year, Gerald’s neighbor got an arc welding kit for Christmas and that very day, the neighbor pushed an old Pontiac into his front yard.
No one worried about the lawn; Trona had no lawns. The alkaline soil killed any grass (and even most weeds) that tried to grow there. With no lawn to worry about, the neighbor decided to use the space in front of his house to turn an old car (with a great engine) into a dune buggy.
Cutting arc in hand, the neighbor dove in and stripped off the car body, even removing the dash board with all its gauges. Then he sliced right through the middle of the car, drive shaft and all, so that the car lay in two separate pieces. Cutting all the way through the car again, but now just in front of the rear wheel assembly, he hauled the whole middle section of the car away to the dump.
He was energized! Work continued for days in every spare moment. He welded together the front and rear pieces of both the drive shaft and frame. The car was now less than half its original length.
The straight-8 engine, with its eight pistons in a row, took up half the length of the buggy. Behind the engine on the shortened frame was just a bench seat with a gas tank tucked behind that. The car ended there. With no real weight to pull, that straight-8 knew no bounds.
The next step in the plan was to weld on roll bars and side supports, but Gerald’s neighbor ran out of steam at that point. The project sat idle for weeks. All along, Gerald had been observing the project next door with interest, so one day his neighbor called him over.
“Hey, Gerald. You like this dune buggy?”
“Sure,” Gerald said. “It’s going to be great.”
His neighbor chewed his lip. “I think I’m done. My wife is tired of this project and keeps reminding me that I’ve got other things I should be working on.” He raised his eyebrows at Gerald. “If you want it, I’ll sell you this buggy ‘as is’ for just my out-of-pocket costs.”
“Yea? How much you talkin’?”
While you couldn’t beat the price, I think Gerald realized from the start there were going to be ongoing costs of upkeep, and it would be good to have a partner sharing those costs. There were a number of guys he could have partnered with, but he chose me, and the next day in school, he approached me with a proposition. He would let me in on the deal as a 50% owner if I paid half the price to his neighbor.
This sounded like a sweet deal to me. I was 14 or 15 years old at the time and crazy about cars. Though I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, I had been driving (mostly off road) for some time. The buggy had no lights or plates or anything else that was required by law for street use, but it was after all, just a dune buggy intended only for off-road use. I figured I could sell the concept to my Dad on that basis.
Early the next morning, when no one else was around, I approached Dad as he ate a solitary breakfast at the kitchen-bar counter. “Hey, Dad. Gerald Rana’s neighbor has a dune buggy for sale. Gerald and I want to go in on it 50/50. Can I buy half?”
Dad looked at me closely as he chewed another bite. I could see dollar signs flashing in his eyes and knew he was wondering how many hundreds of dollars this was going to cost him.
“It won’t cost much,” I said encouragingly.
Dad smiled and shook his head. “How much?”
“Fourteen bucks is the total cost. If I pay seven dollars, I’ll be half owner.”
Surprise flitted across his face, and he stopped chewing. Then his grin widened. I was prepared with a list of logical reasons why this purchase would make good sense, but without another question, he stood up, pulled his billfold out of his pants pocket and peeled off a five dollar bill and two ones.
Handing the money to me he said, “Here you go. Just don’t kill yourself.”
I had a dune buggy (half a stripped-down dune buggy), but we used it like a car. We couldn’t drive it much at night, without using flashlights, or drive it to school, but otherwise it had many practical uses. Since the County Sherriff only came through Trona on Thursdays, most of the time we drove it all over town.
It was an educational purchase as well. I learned a lot about auto repair. Whenever anything went wrong, we’d drive out to the city dump and rummage around in the abandoned cars for a new part. We didn’t care if it came from a Pontiac or not. We could make just about any part from any other make or model work in our Pontiac. Once, the starter motor went bad. We found one that didn’t look too corroded in a Ford and drilled new holes in the frame to make it fit into our Pontiac. The buggy started up like a dream. Already a Frankenstein creation, we constantly attached more miss-matched parts, always trying to make it run better (faster).
The real joy was what that buggy could do. And the freedom we enjoyed. We drove all over the desert, exploring places a regular car could never go. We did tear up a lot of old tires, but there were piles of replacements available at the dump, and we were always trading out the buggy’s tires in a constant tradeoff between better traction or greater speed.
For a while, we were excited with a set of rear dual tires mounted on dual rims from an abandoned, flatbed truck, but in the end, we decided the duals slowed us down too much and went back to single rims.
Sometimes, we considered the cost of getting a set of roll bars added to the frame, but we worried about the extra weight the bars would add to the buggy. Long term, the only things we really missed were the gauges, especially the gas gauge and a speedometer. We were always dipping a stick into the gas tank to see how much gas was left, and we never knew how fast we were going.
Though we didn’t know our speed, we did know, in a drag race, we never had any trouble shutting down all the other buggies around town. None of those new V8s could hold a candle to our straight-8, and with the right tires, we would leave the competition in the dust.
Once when Gerald’s parents were out of town, he drove his Dad’s car behind me as I raced the buggy down the Trona-Wildrose Highway as fast as I could go. We wanted to see what the buggy’s maximum speed could be on a paved highway, but in just a few miles on a straightaway stretch of road, Gerald’s car fell back quickly. He wasn’t matching my speed, so I slowed, waiting for him to catch up.
When he pulled up beside me in the opposite lane, I yelled, “What’s the matter?”
“When you got past 120 mph, my Dad’s car couldn’t keep up anymore. You were leaving me in the dust like I was standing still.”
We never did find out what the buggy’s maximum speed was, and I never did tell my Dad about the speed test. However, I am sure that buggy was the best $7 investment I’ve ever made. To this day, I sometimes sit back, close my eyes and imagine that I’m flying through the desert behind a Pontiac straight-8 engine with the pedal to the metal and no cares in the world.
That first car was a first love of a special kind, which takes on the magical characteristics of the best kind of prop found in any story, fiction or otherwise. Whenever I think of setting the stage in a story with a powerful prop, I will always think of my first car in all its stripped-down glory, and then attribute the quirky characteristics needed to give my story’s key prop its own, one-of-a-kind personality—one that any reader could love.
PEOPLE WATCHING: The Skill of Character Development
A Call to Grow Up.
When people ask my brother, Andy, what he recommends to new writers, he usually says three things: (1) keep writing – write about anything and everything, (2) visit new places – keep traveling both near and far, and (3) study people – pay attention to the people around you and take note of what they say and do. This week, I’m still talking about the benefits of people watching.
From my earliest days, one of the people I watched most closely was my Dad. I have many memories of Dad, but one sticks out in my mind from my high school senior year in Trona, California. Dad was the only dentist in town and active in community service. For many years, he served on the local school board.
Trona is an isolated, small town, located deep in the Mojave Desert. The principal employers in the area are the local mineral processing plants and the railroad. The surrounding desert is studded with old mines and active prospecting sites, where stashes of dynamite have been abandoned, ready for the taking by curious teenagers.
During one school board meeting, the recreational use of dynamite by high school students became a hot issue. Recently, someone had blown up a small bridge at the Trona golf course. (It wasn’t me.) The local golf course was just one big sand trap. It had no grass, but Dad sometimes played it. In that board meeting, Dad waxed a bit hot under the collar on what should be done about this problem, until another board member interrupted to say, “AlDean, your son is one of the ringleaders.”
That stopped Dad cold. Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that I might have dynamite.
I confess. I was guilty as charged. For several years, my friends and I had collected dynamite. With the hard caliche layer in our desert soils, the use of dynamite was common both in construction as well as in mining, and dynamite didn’t scare me. I had researched the use of dynamite in a large university library while I was staying on campus at a week-long, youth conference for high school kids. Along with learning the basics of setting a blast, I had researched safety issues. What could go wrong?
I was late that night coming home from football practice. We lived in Pioneer Point, north of Trona. As I walked in, I saw Dad sitting on a straight-back chair in the living room, facing the front door, staring at me. This was unusual. I had never found him waiting for me before.
“Come here and sit on the couch,” he instructed curtly. “We need to talk.” His unblinking eyes were stone hard, and I could see his cheek muscles tensing as he gritted his teeth.
Uh-oh. My thoughts raced as I tried to think of what I might have done.
“At the school board meeting tonight, someone said you were one of the kids using dynamite around town. Is this true?”
I never lied to Dad. “Yes, but I never blown up anything around town—just out in the desert.”
He proceeded to tell me what a numb-skull thing that was. He said I would get myself killed or, worse yet, kill someone else. “What are you thinking?” he finished.
“I never blow up anything that is worth anything to anyone, Dad. Just big rocks out in the desert and old abandoned cars and other desert junk. Things like that. And I am always careful.”
Dad glared at me, shaking his index finger. “Do you have any dynamite right now?”
“Where is it?
“Hidden out in the desert.”
That stopped him for a moment. “Well, get rid of it.”
“Dad, how am I supposed to do that? I can’t just put it out on the curb for the trash collector to pick up on garbage day.”
Dad stared at me for a second in thought. “Well, this weekend, go out into the desert and blow it all up. Just be careful! And, don’t get yourself killed.”
“Okay, Dad. I’ll be careful, and I’ll get rid of it.”
His face relaxed a little, then stiffened again. “And do not tell your Mom about any of this!”
I’m not sure now who came with me that Saturday. It might have been my good buddy, Ed Rockdale, who lived just down the street from me, but that weekend we had a blast blowing up 50 or 60 sticks of dynamite in some of the largest explosions we had ever engineered.
A good dynamite blast is a real science. Depending on how well the charge is set, the blast can range from just a loud boom with a sharp shockwave to a spectacular explosion throwing debris hundreds of feet into the air and significantly altering the face of the landscape. The size of the explosion doesn’t necessarily depend upon the number of sticks of dynamite used in the blast if the charge is set deep in a confined space. We usually rationed out the dynamite, but that Saturday we experimented with new variations on our normal blasting procedures and were rewarded with some spectacular results.
Saturday evening, Dad asked me if I still had any dynamite.
“It’s all gone,” I answered truthfully. I did do more dynamiting while away at college in another state, with dynamite purchased from a construction company, but never again at home.
After that evening, Dad never brought up the subject again. In Dad’s economy of words, the topic of dynamite was forever behind us. He was never backward about letting me know when I had messed up, but then, once the issue was resolved, the subject was in the past forever. Dad didn’t hold my mistakes over my head, and even as a teenager, I felt he truly respected me. I know I truly respected him.
As I grew into adulthood, with a family of my own, Dad became one of my best friends. I always valued his wisdom and advice. I miss him a lot, now that he is gone. I know that everyone thinks they have the best Dad, but I’m pretty sure that I did.
PEOPLE-WATCHING: A Spectator Sport.
Thank Heaven for Good Friends, who Survive.
We’re still talking about the benefits of watching people. Last week, I told you about my buddy, Jay Bell, and how by blind luck we all survived the rotten old ladders of Ruth Mine. This week I’m going to tell a story about two more of my high school friends. These are people who helped me understand a lot about human nature, and this is a survival story as well.
I think it was during my junior year. Debate class had gotten past the opening business, and we were breaking into small groups for individual work when Elaine Arnold slipped into the desk next to me. Elaine was a year younger than me. Good-looking, a straight-A student, and always a teacher’s favorite at Trona High School, she was a straight arrow if ever there was one and a good debate buddy. I learned a lot from both her debate as well as her extemporaneous techniques.
She spoke softly, leaning over the gap between us, so only I could hear. “I’ve got a question for you.”
I pulled back a bit. “Oh?” I was usually asking her the questions.
“I know it’s ridiculous, but I’ve heard stories.” She glanced around. Everyone was busy. “Do you go out in the desert blowing things up for fun?” She shrugged. “I just wondered. Do you?”
My shoulders relaxed. I had imagined a hard question. “Of course. Doesn’t everybody?”
I don’t know how I had earned the “mild-mannered reporter” label. It always surprised me that everyone—except those who really knew me—saw me as the quiet guy who never did anything exciting or dangerous. Most people incorrectly assumed that I was the careful, quiet type.
True, I was an introvert, hiding my shyness by being overly courteous to others, but that was just my outer shell. Underneath, I hungered for the maximum speeds and loudest noises I could find. My definition of R&R included fast cars and high explosions.
Elaine stared at me in earnest for a moment, analyzing what I’d said. I wasn’t sure how she was reacting to this new revelation and was starting to feel nervous.
She leaned in close again and whispered, “Will you take me with you sometime?”
“Sure,” I said with a relieved grin. “How about this Saturday?” Saturday was a safe day to go out dynamiting. The Sheriff from San Bernardino only came through town on Thursday.
On Saturday morning, I got another long-time buddy, Ken Corbridge, to come along with us. Ken was always available for a new adventure, but as I look back now, I realize that I may have made a mistake. When we were exploring, if any one got hurt, it was always Ken. He had commemorative scars from all the big adventures. He was the yin to Jay Bell’s yang.
Whereas Jay Bell had a guardian angel who worked overtime, protecting him. If Ken had a guardian angel at all, his angel had been missing in action for years. In Ruth Mine, it was a good thing Jay came up the ladder last and not Ken, or Jay may have been the only one to get out alive.
We picked up Elaine in my old dune buggy (with a Pontiac straight-eight engine) and drove out to our dynamite stash. Elaine’s eyes got really big, but she made no comment. The dune buggy had no sides, roll bars, or seat belts, and only one long bench seat. We put Elaine in the middle of the seat, with me driving on one side and Ken seated on her other side to keep her from falling out.
Ken held the dynamite in his lap.
“We’re going to Gold Bottom Mine,” I explained to Elaine as we drove out of town.
Before Airport Road, I turned off onto a wide, flat dirt road that circled around the dry lake bed of Searles Lake. The mineral companies that mined the lake deposits kept the road in good condition, so I knew I could get up some real speed, which I hoped would impress Elaine. The road, clearly visible through the many holes in the floorboard beneath our feet, whizzed by at ever increasing speeds.
After the road curved south, I increased our speed on the wide, dirt road. Elaine was enjoying the ride. Suddenly, I saw the road leading to Gold Bottom Mine turning off on the left. I spun the wheel, and we skidded sideways, throwing clouds of dirt into the air and massacring some bushes before finally straightening out onto the narrow, rutted mine road.
Enveloped in dust, I felt Elaine tugging at my arm. “We lost Kenny,” she yelled in my ear. I glanced over. Sure enough, it was just Elaine and me on the seat. Ken was gone.
I slammed on the breaks, slid to a stop, and backed up along the rutted track to return to the Searles Lake road. Through the swirling dust, I saw Kenny lying flat on his back in the middle of the road, holding the dynamite tightly to his chest. Jumping out, we ran to him.
“Ken, are you okay?” I called. “Are you okay?”
I got to him first and stood looking down. “Ken? Ken! Are you all right?”
Ken wasn’t answering. It looked like he had some road burn on one arm. Eyes closed tight, he lay perfectly flat and still.
When Elaine joined me, she leaned over and commented, “He’s still holding the dynamite.”
As soon as she spoke, Ken came alive. Both eyes flew open. Raising the dynamite above his chest, he set it over on the road away from him, and then pulled his hands back onto his chest again.
I stared down at him, smiling. “It’s too late for that, Ken. If that dynamite were going to blow, it would have happened already. With your luck, I’m surprised it didn’t blow.”
“Don’t give me that crap,” Ken growled, using the one swear word he had not yet given up.
After a couple minutes, Ken was up dusting himself off, complaining about the road rash on his arm. It was bleeding and burning, but he had seen worse. Elaine seemed fascinated by his quick recovery, so I explained that this kind of thing happened to Ken all the time. I didn’t mention that it usually happened when I was driving.
For the rest of the drive to Gold Bottom Mine, Ken insisted that Elaine hold the dynamite since she was in the middle and less likely to fall out. Since Elaine was holding the dynamite, she insisted that I drive slow. After all, the road to the mine was bumpy.
I don’t remember specifically what we found that day to destroy, but we had a great time blowing up rocks and assorted, abandoned desert junk. Elaine was suitably impressed with the power of dynamite, and being a quick study, soon had the science of dynamiting figured out.
For my own part, I came away with a newly found appreciation of the power of dynamite in guaranteeing a successful date. For the rest of my high school days and into my college career, I was never turned down once for a dynamite date, when I explained that we were really going to blow something up. In fact, before we were married, I took my wife on a dynamite date, but I’ll let her tell that story.
PEOPLE-WATCHING FOR FUN AND PROFIT.
Thank Heaven for the Characters of this World.
Last week, we established that, at least for writers, there can be creative benefits in tapping into the crazy side of one’s own id. In addition, there can be creative benefits in understanding the crazy side of a friend or family member. In fact, the closer the friend or loved one, the better the opportunity to observe and understand what makes that person tick, especially under stress, like when angry or afraid.
I have to tell you about my good friend, Jay Bell. Jay was blind, as in mostly blind, legally blind. Born prematurely in a small hospital, the oxygen mix was too rich in the tent they put over him and his eyes were permanently damaged. When I moved with my family to the isolated desert town of Trona, California, Jay was the weird kid with the heavy, half-inch thick glasses, but he soon became one of my best friends. Throughout our high school and college days, we had great adventures together.
Though Jay saw only a fuzzy version of the world the rest of us saw clearly, he was fearless, especially when we were exploring old mines. In the dark, he often led the way. In truth, I learned some important lessons about life while watching Jay face the unknown. Many of his strong, and some of his quirky, qualities are now reflected in my stories--in my key characters, both protagonists as well as antagonists.
In addition, being friends with Jay in high school had a number of great benefits. First off, was his Mom. “Hi, Berk,” she’d say with a smile when I showed up at Jay’s front door, and then she’d stuff me full with large quantities of home-cooked food. At 6 feet 4 inches and the center on the Trona Tornado’s football team, I was always hungry. My stomach was basically bottomless.
Another benefit was the freedom we had to explore the desert. I think Mrs. Bell thought Jay would be safe with me and pretty much let us run free in Mr. Bell’s old pickup truck--as long as I was driving of course. Jay never did get a driver’s license, and his father had long since retired, so his truck was rarely used. In hindsight, her faith in me may not have been justified. Though neither of us was ever seriously injured, it was not for want of trying, and to this day, I still carry minor scars from our misadventures.
One hot summer morning, a few friends, including Jay and me, decided to drive out to the Ruth Mine in Homewood Canyon. It was always cool inside the deep mines, and we were ready for adventure. Besides just hanging-out in the canyon, picking off mangy jackrabbits with our .22s, and gorging on Hostess cherry pies, we hoped to find dynamite left behind in the old, abandoned mine. We were always searching for new sources of dynamite and rumor had it that explosives were stored in the depths of that mine.
The main shaft of Ruth Mine is vertical, plunging straight down into the deep, dark core of the mountain. Every fifty to one hundred feet, horizontal shafts branch off, reaching out to where more veins of ore had been discovered. In our day, the only way down to the many horizontal tunnels was on a wooden ladder, really a series of ladders bolted in sections to the large, timber support beams bracing the sides of the main shaft. The ladders stretched for hundreds of feet down the sheer sides of the wide vertical shaft.
Carrying extra flashlights and batteries, we descended into the bowels of the mine, which seemed to go for miles in many directions, on many levels. Whenever we came across a cave-in or a tunnel closure, Jay was usually the one to squeeze through to see if there was anything worth exploring on the other side. Not only was Jay thin and wiry, nothing seemed to intimidate him. After exploring for hours and finding only old tools and mining equipment, but no dynamite, we were hungry and decided to climb back up to the truck. Those Hostess pies were calling us.
One behind the other, we crawled up the series of old ladders, passing one level of horizontal tunnels after the other, with Jay reluctantly bringing up the rear. He had wanted to go deeper, but we had prevailed upon him to take a break. We could go back down later and explore more. It looked like it would take days to explore the extensive, multilevel complex of horizontal tunnels.
We had reached the top of the vertical shaft, which connected with a short tunnel leading to the outside, and were waiting for Jay, when suddenly he called, “Hey guys, I need a hand over here!”
There was a large gap between the support beams that rimmed the top of the main shaft and the rocky ledge of the exit tunnel. The ladder ended even with one of the timber beams, and there was nothing to hold on to while stepping across from the ladder to the stone ledge. Jay had put his flashlight in his pocket so he could climb with both hands, and the exit tunnel at this point was far enough away from the entrance to be in perpetual dark. Jay was completely blind as he got ready to step over to the tunnel’s uneven floor.
Turning with my flashlight, I saw Jay’s free hand grasping helplessly at thin air, so I reached out and grabbed his hand. With one hard pull, I dragged him up onto the ledge next to me, and as Jay struggled to get both feet onto solid rock, the whole top section of the ladder, twenty feet or more in length, broke away from the support beams. With a splintering screech of old wood, the ladder dropped out of sight and crashed loudly as it fell hundreds of feet down to the bottom of the mine.
In the total silence that followed, we all stood at the edge of the gaping shaft, staring down soberly into the deep, black depths, realizing that lady luck had just smiled on Jay.
Finally, Ken Corbridge cleared his throat to speak. I thought he was going to say we were lucky that no one was still on that ladder when it broke away. Instead, he said, rather forcefully, “Oh, crap! Now we can’t go back down that shaft again.” That was as close as Ken got to swearing since he had sworn off swearing.
Jay straightened up defensively. “Don’t blame me! It wasn’t my fault the ladder broke.”
Suddenly, we were all grinning, so I added my two cents. “Yea, sure. You were going to try to ride that ladder like a sled all the way back down to the bottom of the mine. You were the one that kept saying we should keep going until we got all the way to the bottom.”
“Not that way!” Jay backed away from the vertical shaft and turned to leave. “That ladder probably fell halfway to Hell. I’m not interested in any one-way tickets to nowhere.”
“Well,” I said. “Let’s not tell your Mom about this.”
“Right! And she wonders why I never have much to say about our adventures. If she knew half of what happens when we go exploring, I’d be grounded for life.”
That about summed it up.
In silence, we trudged back to Mr. Bell’s old pickup truck. I knew Jay was a great story teller, when his Mom wasn’t around, so I couldn’t help thinking, Someday, Jay is going to have some great stories to tell his grandkids. I hope he remembers to mention my part in his stories.
It turns out that Jay never got a chance to tell his stories, at least not in this life, but that is another story altogether. In the end, it turned out that I would be the one telling the stories, and I do remember to include Jay in my stories—in more ways than one.